"Strange Fire" by Melvin Jules Bukiet

An Israeli speechwriter blinded by torturers smells his way through a wise and satisfying novel of international intrigue.

Published May 21, 2001 7:00PM (EDT)

The world of Nathan Kazakov is composed of platitudes, poetry, shadows, sounds and smells (mostly, or most enticingly, of men). Oh, and civil war.

The platitudes are produced by him, for the good of his boss, Simon ben Levi, the hawkish prime minister of Israel, for whom Nathan works as a speechwriter. The poetry is committed to memory, left over from a time when he thought he might be a poet himself, before he lost his eyesight (and much of his idealism) during an extended torture session as a young soldier. ("As my mnemonic capacities exploded, my poetic facilities atrophied," Nathan says. "Somehow, poetry had been burned out of my head along with my eyes.") And the shadows and sounds and smells are the only senses he has left.

When the novel begins, Nathan Kazakov is already a blind, gay, Russian-born émigré, and half in love with his boss's archaeologist son, Gabriel (who smells of deserts, and, unfortunately for his father, is an outspoken dove). Soon after, Nathan loses an ear to a Brooklyn sniper, who may have been aiming for Simon, Gabriel or Nathan himself. This launches what can only be called a complicated plot of international intrigue, which has all of the elements of a pulpy noir thriller -- involving Arab terrorists, Orthodox settlers, the Israeli secret service and a mysterious, sympathetic doctor (who smells of scrambled eggs and cheese).

It could be Tom Clancy, minus the ham-fisted prose. Bukiet's prose is, in fact, so beautiful that it often overshadows the complicated plot of international intrigue. This, as it turns out, is extremely relevant to the central theme of the book, which is, among other things, how language and rhetoric act as a palliative to dim meaning. And nobody knows the power of rhetoric better than a political speechwriter. ("Whether you call it perception or actuality makes no difference; perception is actuality in the Middle East. Except, of course, when it's not.") For example, when a (female) arms dealer tells him, "Believe me, Mr. Kazakov, unlike every other creature without a prick in this country of pricks, I harbor no attraction to and no affection for the current Prime Minister," Nathan thinks, "I wonder who writes this stuff. I appreciate the parallel construction and even more so the tactical vulgarity." (Nathan himself is gloriously bitchy when engaged in tactical vulgarity. Here he is on his boss, the prime minister: "He's a human condom, but if he breaks -- you're screwed.")

One does not see Israel through Nathan's eyes, but one feels it, smells it and hears its cadences. And for all of the suspense, the politics and the darkness lurking in the eaves, the wisdom of this novel comes from the fact that our (lame, blind, jaded, earless) guide is endowed with such wit, intelligence and humanity.

By Amy Benfer

Amy Benfer is a freelance writer in Brooklyn, N.Y.

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